Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


The following is the official record of the beginning of such places for criminals as the one described in this chapter:


Of the Administrative and Organizational Board, OGPU

No. 185

Moscow, August 18, 1924


Orders issued by Comrade Yagoda, assistant chief of the OGPU:

(1) In order to combat crime among young people between the ages of 13 and 17 years, a Children’s Labor Commune for 50 persons is to be organized.

(2) F. G. Melikhov is appointed head of the Children’s Labor Commune.

(3) The head of the Children’s Labor Commune is to act in all matters under the orders of M. S. Pogrebinsky, who, in turn, will act on the basis of a plan of work confirmed by me.

Such an order, judging from the resulting situation of ten years later, ought to be marked with a monument, and it is. Just outside of Moscow, on the location of a once lovely estate, there is now a small town of modern buildings replacing the wooden ones of ten years ago.

One does not know what to call this place. To say that it is a penal institution is misleading unless the reader has seen something like it. However, it rates as that in the USSR, and since there are others like it in scattered sections, one comes to the conclusion that it is something unique in this line and accepts it as such. It is easy to be enthusiastic over such things and not to look deeper for some adverse angles, but the author, after as careful examination as she could make in a skeptical manner, could only praise the development.

Two trips were made to this colony, the second to confirm what had first been observed. However, since it was a visit to a similar colony at Kharkov that elicited the warm praise from M. Herriot that has already been quoted, it seemed safe to conclude that it existed as had first been believed. It is impossible to understand how any one could fail to be moved on viewing the place and realizing its tremendous import in the matter of remaking criminals. If the OGPU had committed nothing but the acts of terror it has been credited with, the creation of such spots as these would compensate in a great way for its darker deeds. It is unfortunate that one must try to tell of Bolshevo. The only thing to do is to visit and see for one’s self. It is difficult to describe atmosphere, and that is the thing that pervades the place and makes it even more constructive than the physical side could account for.

This commune celebrated its tenth birthday in August of this year (1934). Its population was preparing for it when we were there, building platforms out under the trees, putting finishing touches here and there, and getting ready for speeches, visitors, and other entertainment of various kinds. And these people can tell a good tale of growth and progress, too, for they started with a handful in the initiation of a bold experiment and now their town has a population of three thousand inhabitants. The reader’s first deduction will be that a prison growth such as that must indicate some undesirable conclusions. But when one knows that it means that this number has been transferred from other penal institutions with a view to having everyone possible enjoy this freedom and training, then the significance is different.

Reference has already been made to the wandering hordes of children, confirmed in criminal habits, who presented the gravest of problems to the government authorities at the end of the Civil War and Volga famine. It was seen that if headway was to be made against the situation, the whole perspective of life must be changed, and the new one must be attractive enough to make these vagrant criminals want to break with a past that to their imaginative years had a glamour and provided escape from the responsibilities of ordinary living.

In the midst of the perplexity, the groping for some plan, we find Felix Dzerzhinsky, organizer of that terror of terrors, the Cheka, and original head of the GPU, offering his far-reaching organ to effect this merciful innovation. Let his own words inform us:

“I wish to apply part of my personal efforts and above all the efforts of the Cheka to looking after these homeless waifs. I have come to this conclusion on the basis of two considerations. Firstly, it is a terrible calamity, and when you look at children, you cannot help thinking everything should be for them. The fruits of the revolution are not for us but for them. But how many of them have been wrecked by struggle and poverty! We must rush to their aid just as if we saw children drowning. The Commissariat of Education alone cannot cope with this matter, the widest help from all Soviet bodies is needed. It is necessary to form under the Central Executive Committee a broad commission containing representatives of all commissariats and all organizations which can be useful in this matter. I have already spoken with people here and there. I want to be at the head of this commission myself. I want to include the apparatus of the Cheka practically in this work.

“I am impelled to do this for the second reason. I think that our apparatus is one of those which works most accurately. It has branches everywhere. People reckon with it. They are afraid of it, but even in such a matter as saving and feeding children, it is possible to find laxness and even dishonesty. We are going over more and more to peaceful construction; and I think: why not use our fighting apparatus to combat such a calamity as homelessness among children?”

This proposition was made in 1921. It was in August, 1924, that the GPU of which he was then head, established the Bolshevo Labor Commune, thus launching a new epoch not only in the care of juvenile criminals for whom it was particularly intended, but in the treatment of all the others. It must have given a great thrill to this man who had brought death to so many of the state’s enemies to take a part in reconstructing the lives of youths who would, he hoped, be its friends. At least he had the satisfaction of seeing his judgment vindicated, for, from the beginning, the venture proved his rightness.

These men did not jump into the scheme as suddenly as might seem, nor without consideration. They went into intimate study of the forms of education of children, they applied themselves vigorously to working out an accurate theory, then they formulated what appeared to them three basic rules of procedure. That the GPU, in the midst of their frightening activities, could muster faith enough in anybody to develop such a plan is in itself a phenomenon, but that they could convey such a trust to others, to these young criminals, seems more incredulous still. They were not exactly an agent for inspiring such a feeling. But notice the three basic principles referred to.

First and foremost was that principle of “trust” held like a shining torch before the eyes of incredulous youngsters. It was decided that there must be no compulsion anywhere in the commune. With coercion the order of the day, there was to be none here. Strange contradiction, one of many that has filled the land. Side by side with sternness toward those who oppose the order, one finds this steady development of humane institutions, untouched by the harsher methods used in the other direction. In this colony there was to be only trust. If one wanted to stay, he was to stay, and if he wanted to go, then he was to go. He simply walked away, for there were not to be—and are not today— any guards. There were to be no restrictions of their freedom. They were to realize that they were in an educational institution pure and simple. They were to come of their own volition, because of an expressed desire to join in the program of this commune. These inhabitants were to be persons who had come to realize the futility of a life of crime and who wished therefore to change to another sort.

If the individual was to make this change he would have to be able to perform some task well, and to that end the second principle was incorporated. The commune was to be devoted to teaching these people how to do some kind of work. Workshops were established and instructors installed, but the responsibility for sustaining a condition under which the trades could be learned was placed on the residents of the Commune. There was no preaching, no lectures, but it was demonstrated that each must be responsible for his share in this life or all would suffer. If machines stopped because of the irregularity of one or two, then the education of others in an industrial line would suffer. And one who brought about this inconvenience must answer to his comrades for his conduct.

The third principle was to make each feel his responsibility for the group, and the reverse, that all were responsible for seeing that each member measured up to his duties. Every member of the Commune was bound to see that a recalcitrant one was brought to account. In this manner any disciplinary problems were taken care of from the beginning. Thus, in the lack of any compulsion the onetime criminal learns to lead a normal life and to discipline himself; in being taught a trade he is prepared to return to a life or perhaps enter it for the first time, in which he earns his way; and by his feeling of responsibility for others, he in conjunction with the group keeps the affairs of the Commune running smoothly and efficiently.

Once the Commune had been set up, the next problem was to get some inhabitants for it. Among the institutions housing juvenile offenders, volunteers were asked for, after explanations of the character of the new place had been given. Pogrebinsky who, it will be recalled, was one of the organizers, gives a version of this experience that is interesting. He writes:

“When we called for volunteers for the first commune, 15 responded. Very suspiciously they donned their new clothes. They could not believe that henceforth they were free, and they warily eyed the prison guards, trying to guess how many would be sent with them as a convoy.

“But here began something unusual. They were given money with which to buy railway tickets to the Commune, and no guards were sent with them. Only the manager of the Commune was with them. Sure enough, they seemed to be free! Should they run away? No, better wait. There was something hard to understand, and in addition, something very flattering—they were being trusted!

“On arrival at the place, two of the boys were sent with money for supper. Here was something altogether strange! They were sent off with money, and no guard to convoy them. The boys bought some foodstuff, came back and returned the whole change. They were utterly astounded when the manager showed them the house where they were to live and explained to them: Everything that you can see, boys—the clothes, food, tools—is being lent to you by the OGPU, and you will have to pay for it all later on.”

One can understand their incredulity, even their staying on through curiosity, if nothing else, to see what would happen next in such a topsy-turvy affair. And day after day the wonder and pleasure in having a home, being free and engaged in making interesting things would grow and hold them steadily.

The managers of the Commune were wary and anxious too, not through fear of escape of their charges, but lest they do the wrong thing and check the growing confidence. In their eagerness not to put pressure of any kind on these young people, they have let the initiative for expansion come from them. In the beginning those who came made shoes, stools, and other things, and were satisfied to watch their own tasks grow under supervision, but as the project became more firmly established there were demands for wider industrial training. The leaders granted the requests with great satisfaction as they developed, their only anxiety being that nothing should ever seem “forced.” There was no doubt subtle guidance, but the group was encouraged to undertake its own education. The story is one of continuous growth, both in number and in development of a broader program.

What actually exists now in this place where three thousand work? To begin with there are the paved streets, clean and lined with green shrubbery. The houses beside them are of modern structure, many with flower-filled balconies for each floor, with rows of large windows. There are some small individual houses also, where families live, but it is the lines of those looking from the outside like sunny apartment buildings that gives the place an air of being a town proper.

On inspection one finds small apartments provided for the married couples and dormitory rooms for the single people. A man who is serving a sentence may have his family there with him and so may a married young woman if it is convenient for the husband to come. The apartments that we saw contained two rooms and a bath. One of the rooms was a large kitchen which could also be used for other purposes. One entered into a small hallway which led to the main room, a large combination living-sleeping room. The furniture was good. There were pictures around, a couch, comfortable chairs, the windows were nicely curtained and the appearance altogether homelike. There is a large community dining room, but in case a family wishes to prepare its own meals it can do so.

In the dormitories we saw, there were rather good-sized rooms, not so large as most of those described in the other prisons, with cot-beds placed in line in the usual way. There seemed to be comfort in these collective places but not, of course, as much space per person as the apartments permitted, nor did they have the homelike appearance of the latter. There was light from several windows and a pleasant outlook, and the two girls present on our visit looked exactly as occupants of a home would appear. As housing goes in crowded Moscow this represented an average standard.

The dining room in the factory-kitchen building was quite large and equipped with small tables, such as one would find in a restaurant. One side was almost an entire window. A few late eaters were sitting at tables and attendants were beginning to clean so that the place had a disorderly after-dinner appearance but one of deeper cleanliness.

One might as well not try to keep remembering, as he goes along the street meeting people, that these are convicts of the most habitual sort. They are going or coming from their work exactly as other people would. There is absolutely no difference. They could run away, of course, and a few have, but in the majority of cases, the reverse is true. They do not wish to leave the Commune at the end of their sentence and so they live on and keep a job in some of the factories.

The school building in this Commune is especially lovely. It was completed about two years ago at a cost of a million and a half rubles. It has all the equipment that a good school would be expected to have—a library, reading rooms, laboratories, an auditorium interestingly decorated with murals of working men, which is the work of artist inhabitants, spacious halls and class rooms. The teachers are not residents of the Commune but members of their own profession who come in to teach. The man in charge of the school showed us the building with great pride. The first seven years of education are compulsory, after that there are evening classes for the more advanced.

Education, as already indicated, does not stop with formal classroom work but those interested in the arts, in music, or in writing are provided with channels for special training. There are music circles, art classes, drama work, and literary clubs, and the persons making up this artistic group live in their own building, forming a congenial household. A number of the leading ones, the most talented ones, are paid a stipend by the state, and we were told of a number of musicians and writers who had had their first training in this Commune.

The physical education is carried on in a large and splendidly equipped gymnasium, and building up the body is made a major consideration in the training. Setting up exercises are also a part of the daily program.

The school, with its formal teaching of elementary subjects, is one side of the education program; the other is the work done in the shops. In these two places as well as in this whole atmosphere, the “making people,” spoken of by H. G. Wells, goes on. One must learn a trade and then he must work at it, not as drudgery, but with free enjoyment of his task. In the shops of the shoe factory, the skate factory, the knitting goods factory, the mechanized laundry, the sports goods factory, and the factory kitchen, these former thieves and bandits who have barely escaped with their necks, work at their jobs, some still in the ranks of the unskilled, others risen to instructors and supervisors. One looks and remembers again that there is nothing between them and escape, no one to prevent their walking away, and yet they stay and work. When the day is ended they go out in the street and to their rooms or Walk or do any other thing they wish.

One may break a law of the Commune. To meet the exigencies of such occurrences, there is the comradely court and a penalty either mild or more serious according to the act, and if that is not sufficient then the greatest blow of all will fall—the culprit will be sent back whence he came, or if he came directly he will be transferred to a more severe institution. A new member is on probation for a month and he must prove his worth if he is to live with this group who is serious about making life worth while.

The age is 16-24 now, although at its beginning it was 13-17. There are three thousand inhabitants of the Commune, some of whom have finished their terms and have worked on in the factories. These naturally may be older than the maximum age given for those who are sent. The surrounding community was hostile to the idea at the time of the establishment of the Commune among them, as one can imagine any neighborhood might be at having a group of unrestrained criminals, thieves and housebreakers, set down among them, but there is now a general esteem and friendliness felt for those who work in this unique town.

The hospital is perhaps the greatest prize of the place. A large building, set back from the street, with grass, trees, and shrubs in its front yard, it presents an excellent impression. It is equipped for all the best care of the health of the community. Babies are born, children of the communards attended to, and the whole population served by its staff. It fills not only the role of medical care, but an especially educational one as well.

Bolshevo has been described in detail because it is the largest of the labor communes and was the first in construction. But there is another close to Moscow, built second in order, on the site of the former Nikolo-Ugreshsky Monastery. This commune has four factories, making musical instruments, incubators, electrical repairs, and compressed fiber, and in 1934 it is estimated that they will turn out goods to the value of some twenty-three or twenty-four million rubles. Here, too, are modern houses with all equipment in which the workers are housed according to industry, the metal workers in one, wood workers in another, and those making musical instruments in a third. There is a separate house for those communards who are members of artist circles, a separate house for women, and a building where probationers stay until permanently assigned. There are twenty-two hundred members of the commune.

A third is the Dzerzhinsky Labor Commune at Kharkov which follows the same line of development but is smaller than the others. There are only four hundred members.

It is hard to estimate the results of the work done in such centers as these. A tangible evidence of success is pointed to by authorities on the subject in the steady descent of the percentage of juvenile delinquents to the total number of criminals. This system, spreading year by year to take in all that it may serve, aided by those factory apprenticeship schools that train the 15-18 year old group, ought to do a good deal to depopulate the adult prisons.

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